Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dylan, Obama and the summer of disappointment -- Aug. 18, 2011 column


Talk about hope. A retired postal worker named Todd drove 170 miles from his home in rural West Virginia to Maryland the other day to see Bob Dylan perform.

Todd was eager for Dylan’s autograph, and he carried three of Dylan’s earliest record albums for his signature.

“I’ve been waiting 50 years to see him,” he said. “I hope he’ll play some of these early songs.”

Alas, that didn’t happen. It figures. This has been a summer of disappointments, large and small.

Dylan signed no autographs that night – he didn’t speak except to say thank you and introduce his band – and he played none of his earliest songs. Even if Dylan had played an oldie, Todd might not have recognized it right away. The Dylan repertoire sounds nothing like it once did. His voice is gravelly and guttural; he keeps his music “Forever Young” through changing arrangements that challenge memories.

Dylan is still the master, and he puts on a good show, despite turning 70 in May. These days he’s less prophet than front man.

Dylan recorded his first album the year Barack Obama was born. Both men are enigmatic and cool, and both know something about disappointed fans.

For Obama, this summer’s debt ceiling debacle and stock market rollercoaster have been devastating to his public standing. Only one in four Americans now has a favorable view of his handling of the economy, Gallup reported Wednesday. The president’s overall approval rating is an underwhelming 40 percent.

During Obama’s campaign-style tour of farm country, many who came to see the president said they were disappointed that he hadn’t laid out a plan to fix the economy and create jobs. Obama, sensing the frustration, has said he will do so in a major speech – but not until next month.

Obama’s brilliant campaign slogan from 2008 -- “Yes, we can!” -- always was a Rorschach test, open to each voter’s interpretation. Trouble is, governing is more than affirming; sometimes it’s saying no. It requires skills that come with experience. It doesn’t help that congressional Republicans have devoted themselves to the mantra, “No, you won’t!”

Obama, like Dylan, captured the feelings of a generation. Dylan was hailed as the voice of the protest generation of the 1960s, although he bristles at that, saying he saw himself as “more a cowpuncher than a Pied Piper” of the anti-establishment.

“I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of,” Dylan wrote in his autobiography, “Chronicles.”

As much a commercial success as a musical one, Dylan allows advertisers to use his songs and sells his artwork online. A rumor swept the Internet in 2009 that he was negotiating terms for his voice to be used for GPS directions.

On a concert tour of Asia earlier this year, he was roundly criticized for allowing the government of China to pre-approve his playlist.

But for the fans who tuned in to see him sing “The Times They Are a-Changing” at his first White House appearance last year and for those who attend his ubiquitous concerts this summer, none of that matters.

At Merriweather Post Pavilion, Todd had the seat next to mine. A Vietnam veteran, he worked for Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s and voted Republican for 30 years. He now considers himself an independent.

He was excited to vote for Obama, he says, but the president’s performance has been, well, disappointing. And yet, he plans to vote for Obama again next year. The Republicans have moved too far to the right, he says, and the Tea Party scares him.

After Dylan left the stage, Todd said that even though he didn’t get what he came for, the trip was worth it. He had seen the musical legend at last.

Obama and his team have to hope that millions of Americans weather this summer of disappointment, that they listen to and like Obama’s new arrangements of his policies in the fall and that they choose to stick with him in 2012.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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